It’s extremely difficult to find a single Palestinian who believes the current Israeli- Palestinian negotiations will produce a peace agreement. It is extremely difficult to find a single Israeli who believes that the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will produce a peace agreement. Anyone on either side who speaks about the negotiations is convinced that no agreement is possible because the other side will not make the concessions necessary to reach an agreement.
The Palestinians speak about Israel’s continued settlement building, the refusal to see the “green line” as the basis for negotiations, and the Israeli demand for a continued military presence in the West Bank “proving” that Israel has no real intention of ending its control over the Palestinians and allowing them to have a state of their own.
The Israelis speak about the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, their continued incitement in textbooks, mosques and the media and their refusal to give up the right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel proper “proving” the Palestinians are not really ready for peace.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas provided their own sides with evidence of the positions stated above in their speeches in the United Nations. Both sides used their speeches, in dealing with the peace process, more for speaking to their domestic audiences than trying to reach out to the other side. This is clearly another wasted opportunity in the long history of missed opportunities in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
I suggest that with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiation clock ticking (about seven months to go), we begin to focus on making use of opportunities rather than tossing them out of the proverbial window.
Perhaps it is time to invite PA President Mahmoud Abbas to address the Knesset. Perhaps it is time for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to address the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Perhaps it is time for every single Israeli government minister to meet their counterpart on the Palestinian side to discuss how to make peace real.
This is part of the job of governing – using positions of power to advance the interests of the country. The current Israeli government is still in its first year of service. A new PA cabinet has just been (re)sworn into power.
There is no need to wait for someone on the other side to take the initiative. Each minister (on both sides) can easily pick up the phone and invite their counterpart for lunch. If they have trouble finding the phone number, they can call me. If they would like some third party to arrange the meeting, I am more than willing to serve this function. If they would like their first encounter to be private and out of the media, this too can be arranged. It would of course be better, as public servants, for the public to know about the meetings.
I know many of the ministers on both sides personally. Most of them are decent people with good intentions. Most of them even believe in peace and would like to make a contribution toward its fulfillment.
Yes it is true that negotiations are going on and neither side wishes to compromise on its own sides negotiating positions and strategies.
Meeting and developing personal and professional relationships between the respective ministers or other figures will not jeopardize the chances of reaching an agreement.
The newly elected mayors, who will gain the trust of their publics later this month could also easily reach out to their counterparts on the Palestinian side and meet to discuss cross-border cooperation that would be mutually beneficial to both sides. This exercise in relationship-building could really enhance the changes of success in negotiations by changing the climate of the negotiations themselves.
The total absence of any trust is a huge liability for any negotiation. We negotiate and make agreements out of the belief that the other side of the agreement has good intentions of carrying out their obligations undertaken in the agreement. In our case there is little reason to believe that either side (facing each other) has any good intention to implement obligations when there have been so many examples of non-implementation of obligations (by both sides).
Confidence-building measures are important to enhance possibilities for success. It will be essential to also include mechanisms for monitoring and verification of implementation in the agreements themselves. But personal relationships and trust-building on the human level between leaders are irreplaceable.
Sincerity and integrity are human traits; leadership traits that are demonstrable and once shown enhance trust and open channels of communication that are essential for creating a pathway for peace and reconciliation.
There is no public pressure on Abbas or on Netanyahu to reach an agreement – not because their citizens don’t want an agreement, but because they don’t believe it is possible.
There is little internal political pressure on the leaders from within their cabinets and political parties to reach an agreement for the same and additional reasons. The rising voices of the opposition to peace on both sides are a positive sign, because they indicate that those who don’t want it are perhaps the only ones who believe that it may actually come to be.
The opening of contacts between officials, as suggested above, can also put a more human dimension to the efforts for making peace. This is the responsibility of leaders and elected representatives of the people. Each and every Israeli and Palestinian leader who sees themselves as a leader has a public responsibility to help to make peace real. It’s not just about negotiations; it is about reaching out to the other side and changing reality.
The writer is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book, Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel, has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew, and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas is forthcoming from The Toby Press.
Published also in the Jerusalem Post
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
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